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Alloy squeaked then gestured upwards with one hand. A three-foot-tall construct very similar to metal sprang up out of the ground. Alloy squeaked and the construct lumbered to Xan. Just like the other trials. Xan breathed slowly, methodically, and powered his arms with fire Jin. As the creature drew close, Xan surged forward, Tiger Leaps Over the Ravine. He lunged forward like a charging bull and drove the fiery punch into the onrushing creature. His flame-wreathed fist smashed into the automaton with a scrunch of crumpling metal. Xan let the sweet embrace of fire Jin fade from him. It felt as if the flavor had drained from the world.

The deep baritone resounded, “Very good. Very good. Ya Pass, go to da next line.”

Xan let out a deep breath and got in the next line, happy that this test was so much easier than the metal test had been. “Good job,” Cho told him quietly, eyeing the pile of scrape metal Xan had left behind.

“You too,” Xan shot back with a confident grin. He looked around to see how Sue did. She hadn’t gone yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Soon enough it was Xan’s turn up at the front, ready to square off against the flowing water elemental.

Instructor Bao inclined his head, “Gao Xan. Are you ready?”

Xan bowed slightly, feeling even more confident than he had when facing down the metal creature.

Wave’s solemnly regarded Xan from twin orbs of night black water, which sat recessed into its watery head. With its burbly language, he addressed Xan, “Greetings Seeker. I feel the ripples of your efforts in the Grand Design.”

Instructor Bao looked surprised that Wave spoke to a Seeker directly. This was unprecedented. His head whipped back to Xan in equal wonderment at Xan’s reply.

Xan responded in the same set of burbles, “Great Wave, your presence here honors us all.” Xan bowed again.

Next to Bao, Jyoti commented with raised eyebrows. “Ya can speak water elemental?” Instructor Jyoti looked impressed. “Well dis should be good.”

Xan took his fire stance, both hands at his waist and his knees bent. He reached for fire and fed his Jin, stoking it like the flames of a furnace. Scarlet tongues erupted up his arms and the world became three shades clearer as wondrous energy flooded him, warmed him, and made him feel complete.

Wave splashed like he jumped up in the air. This ejected a little version of the waterspout, only three feet tall. “Go get the human.” Wave burbled, though there was a hint of amusement in its inhuman voice.

The water construct rushed at Xan. As it struck, Xan countered with Tiger Leaps Over the Ravine. It acted as a punishing block, batting the water construct back. He shifted to Immortal Points the Way to slam the construct back even further.

Wave ejected another construct. “Let us see just what this human can do.” The second construct darted at Xan, joining the first.

Xan shifted stance and used the two-arm technique Aer had them practice against two opponents. He pulled the fire to his Jin. His arms blazed, forearms offering a series of punishing blocks, dealing fire damage with each strike, shooting off a splash of red and blue sparks with every hit.

Wave ejected a third construct. Once again, burbling commands. “Get the human. Push him to the limit. He has more yet. He’s holding back…

Instructor Bao exclaimed, “Wave, what are you doing?”

Xan barely heard. He was focused in the moment, consumed with the three creatures assaulting him from all sides. Xan felt the third construct coming at him from the left. He immediately circled right so the other constructs would get in the way. He pulled more fire from his core, cranking up the fuel for his Jin. Xan’s blocks sped up until they were little more than a blur of motion, and he stepped faster. Once more, he reached deeply for the fire in his core and this time it roared.

#

Tendrils of flame erupted around Xan. Crimson energy poured through him in a furnace rush. He yelled with the crescendo as it swirled around him and settled onto him a bare moment before three water constructs dog-piled him with a resplendent whoosh of water, pancaking Xan on the ground.

Xan was giddy from the rush of energy that swirled through him. Reluctantly, he let go of the fire and it faded away. He stood up to see shocked expressions on everyone’s faces. “Did I pass?”

Numbly, Instructor Bao nodded, but it was clear that something was amiss here.

Instructor Jyoti exclaimed, “That was quite the demonstration Xan. An ya attuned. Dat is incredible.” He seemed simultaneously perplexed and proud at the same time.

Wave sloshed over to Xan and bowed. In his burble-tones he said, “It has been an honor to be a catalyst for the Grand Design.” Instructor Bao’s eyes about boggled from his head.

Xan returned the bow. “The honor has been mine, Honorable Wave.” He held up a dripping sleeve. Then concentrating, he pulled water Qi and drew all the moisture out of his clothing and into a ball of condensed water.

Wave took the orb and brought it into itself then moved over to Instructor Bao and said something softly to him that caused him to jump, then look right at Xan. That made Xan nervous.

“Alright, Xan, go over with da others. We have more to test.” Jyoti said, turning his attention to the other students.

Xan moved over next to Cho, who whispered to him, “That was incredible. I’ve never seen anyone move like that. You were a fiery blur.”

Xan grinned at him.

The testing resumed. The last few students rotated through each of the two stations.

Of the entire class, two students didn’t pass. A grim reminder that not everyone had a future at the academy.

The instructors said goodbye to the elementals and the class bowed as they departed. Alloy sank into the earth, while Wave opened a portal and stepped through the simmering door with a cascade of tinkling chimes.

As a group, the three instructors led the students back to the foot of the tower outside Sifu’s building. The students were told to wait while the instructors conferred.

The three instructors deliberated in low tones. Instructor Bao was very animated. Instructor Aer contributed but spent most of his time watching Xan, much to Xan’s discomfort. They continued like that either looking at or pointing at Xan. Each time they pointed sending a jolt of panic raced through Xan like a cup of cold water poured down his back. It wasn't too long before the murmurs of the other students became noticeable.

After a time, they sent a runner to inform the Sifu then hurriedly jumped back into their heated deliberations.

All that Xan could do was stand there and watch in fearful anticipation, dark thoughts sprinting through his mind. He felt like the test had gone amazing, yet clearly something was very, very wrong. He’d defeated both elementals and had even managed to speak to the water elemental in its own native tongue. But maybe that wasn’t enough.

Sue nudged Xan and nodded with her head to the right, directing his attention to where Sifu walked toward the instructors. When he arrived, they all bowed and then all three started speaking at the same time. Sifu clapped his hands once, the sound rang like a gong and everyone was instantly silent, students and instructors alike. Xan thought even the crickets held their breath. Sifu spoke quietly to the three instructors for a couple of minutes, voices so low that he couldn’t make out a word.

Eventually, Jyoti bowed to Sifu and then came over to the students. “Ya are dismissed. We will talk in da morning.” He watched the students disperse, then headed back toward Sifu.

Sifu glanced over and Xan felt a jolt when their eyes made contact.

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About the author

MarkStallings

Bio: I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.

When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.

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